The LAPD — indeed, police nationwide — has been facing a huge problem in recent months, with numerous cases of police brutality prompting public outrage. Of course, police brutality isn’t new in and of itself, but in the highly digitized and refocused public eye it seems that, at least in LA, heightened scrutiny may finally be leading to action that could address the problem.
The problem, of course, being bad PR. It seems like the media can’t go a day without spotlighting a cop who has misjudged a situation and completely overreacted. Nowadays, we have instant videos and strong social media networks creating a communication system that “makes it seem like law enforcement across this entire country are corrupt, brutal, lying thugs,” says Commander Phillip Tingirides of the LAPD. “And that simply is not true.” Now, the LAPD is trying some community outreach to regain the public’s trust.
The outreach program, which invites community leaders to stand in a cadet’s shoes during a training for the appropriate use of lethal force, has been featured in a mini documentary by LA-based documentarians, Rita Baghdadi and Jeremiah Hammerling. In their twelve-minute short, viewers are given insight into the virtual training, where cadets “react” to footage of a bank robber, up to and including the firing of a gun at point blank range. The guests from the community don’t do so well, fingers slipping on the trigger as the robber in the video runs at them. “It surprises people how quickly things evolve in a use-of-force situation,” says Dr. Luann Pannell, the director of LAPD’s training and education, in an immediate cutaway.
You can watch the 12-minute documentary here:
It seems like the object of the exercise was to create empathy for the police force, to show participants “what it’s like to have seconds to choose the most appropriate measure.” Or maybe they just want to show the rigorous training and review that officers undergo to make the correct decisions. However, that’s not what I took from my viewing.
The documentary shows civilians slipping up and making mistakes upon being introduced to police training practices — the same mistakes that we have seen officers make time and time again after completing their training and entering the field. Taken out of context — an editorial necessity for both the documentary and the actual outreach sessions — these glimpses provide no reassurance to the general public that police training actually prepares law enforcers for their jobs. All they show is that training doesn’t do as much to separate officers from civilians as anyone would like to think. The point they’re trying to make is that training goes so far, but the implication is that the training might not go anywhere at all. While I still understand, or at least hope, that that isn’t anywhere near the actual truth, if your aim is a good PR pitch it helps to have a clear message.
The rest of the well-made and thought provoking documentary tells a mother’s story of her experience with police brutality, interspersed with reflections from police officers on why there is so much misunderstanding and broken trust between the police and the public. It left me divided; from the brief portrayal of the police-community outreach, I didn’t see much to inspire trust. The views of life inside training seemed guns-out and militant, and as Francisco Ortega of the Human Relations Commission describes in the documentary, “It’s unrealistic that an officer is going to take that training and then go, thank God, I’m free of bias because I took that training.”
He’s absolutely right. There will always be bias, and there will always be situations in which police officers rely on fear and instinct. Policing is hard and, by all accounts, is even harder now. But training is, or at least should be, what transforms instinct into skill and force into balance. What I see from the LAPD in this outreach and in this documentary is a misdirected apology — an attempt to explain why police killings happen instead of an attempt to prevent them from happening, which is what we’d all rather see from them.
I applaud the LAPD for taking a step in the right direction by creating a space to talk to the community, and by promoting transparency in their training. Face-to-face communication does help, and I hope that the meetings between people and other people — as opposed to confrontations between the police and public — can change enough individuals to change the environment around them. I’m still unconvinced that changing the police officer’s image is something that needs to happen right now, and of course, the best publicity would be to actually work on stopping more murders from happening. But if deliberate rebranding is going to be a major part of the plan, it needs to take into account the cultural context of systematic fear and bias that lies at the core of unnecessary police violence.